Rise: the incredible mostly true story of a brilliant teacher, a struggling town, and the magic of theatre- Drew Rowsome - Moving Pictures - MyGayToronto

Rise: the incredible mostly true story of a brilliant teacher, a struggling town, and the magic of theatre

REVIEW by Drew Rowsome

03 March 2018

It was controversy in the gay press that first made me aware of Rise, a new television series starting on Tuesday, March 13 on Global and NBC. The series chronicles the drama in a small town high school's drama program and is inspired by the book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove. The nonfiction book not only tells the story of the Harry S Truman High School in Pennsylvania's drama program, but also documents the late in life coming out process of its innovative teacher.

The controversy, dubbed "straight-washing," erupted when Rise creator Josh Katmins revealed that the lead character in the television series would be and would remain straight because that was easier for him to relate to and write. With the implication that it would also be more commercial. It turned out to be a bit of a misinterpretation and Katmins and the producers have actually worked closely with GLAAD to make sure that the multiple LGBT storylines in Rise are accurate and presented sensitively. Intrigued, I reached out to Global's very helpful publicist and received screeners of the first two episodes of Rise.

Katmins last project was Parenthood and Rise is what would result if that show were mashed together with Glee. Shot in a documentary cinema verité style and resolutely gritty, Rise positions itself as drama. It is actually soap opera (which I mean as a compliment) with multiple storylines hitting every hot topic button imaginable. There is a stage mother, a slutty mother, a mother with cancer, a horny coach, teenage alcoholism, a closeted teen, a transgender teen, a homeless teen, a reference to the opioid crisis, a car crash, religious fanatics, sports fanatics, father issues, sibling rivalry, money issues, sexual harassment, and a bit of song and dance. And that is just the first two episodes.

At first it is a bit overwhelming, with so many very special episode issues being introduced that Rise approaches parody. However by midway through the second episode it settles into a parallel quadrangle structure that is quite intriguing and, by ignoring the plotlines that I found extraneous (and feel free to do the same, with so many options there is, like a box of chocolates, something to appeal to every taste), I became quite involved. My only quibble, and I'm aware it is a personal one, is that the dramatic moments are downplayed in favour of realism so that when the big climax of each episode arrived, there was not enough impact for a wow factor. Of course the opposite would have risked descending/ascending into camp which is not the intention of Rise. It is a fine line and Rise is firmly on both sides of it.

The main gay storyline is indeed sensitively done. Ted Sutherland plays Simon who has traditionally been the lead in all the school musicals. No wonder, not to disparage his talents, but he is the sole male to audition for a role in the controversial planned production of Spring Awakening. His parents are hardcore Catholics so Simon is deeply in the closet, even to himself. So of course he is cast as Hanschen the gay character and, more importantly, is cast opposite the doe-eyed tousle-haired Jeremy who awakens something in Simon. Jeremy is portrayed by the delectable Sean Grandillo who builds on his ability to portray the perfect sexy but non-threatening potential boyfriend that he perfected in The Real O'Neals.

The hesitation, the fear, the family disapproval, and the acquiring of a fag hag as an attempt at heterosexuality are all realistically if not subtly portrayed. And postitioned as a counterpoint to what I am going to assume is meant to be the breakout romantic entanglement between the feisty fragile waitress Auli'i Cravalho and football jock Damon J Gillespie who also happens to rap (a cringeworthy scene) and be sensitive. Gillespie and Casey Johnson as the wayward son are given lots of time to smoulder and are being groomed for teen idol status, but I predict they will be lose out to the wide-eyed and mysterious Rarmian Newton. Not that his storyline is any more intriguing or plausible, he is just that fraction of a dimple cuter.

The most affecting storyline is Ellie Desautels transitioning teen Michael. This is the only issue that isn't trumpeted, instead it is almost tentative as if afraid of offending either trans folk or the rabid bigots that fear them. So when Michael wins one small victory and it registers on their face, it is the first time that Rise resonates beyond the soap on the screen. There is the expected spirited work from Rosie Perez as a spitfire drama coach who almost gets sidelined, and Shirley Rumierk will be an intriguing slut with a heart of gold if she is given more to do. And who can resist the resident mean girl Gwen Strickland who is actually just browbeaten herself? As Global emphasizes: "Canadian Amy Forsyth plays Gwen Strickland."

That leaves the dramatic centre of Rise and the cause of all the controversy, drama department head Lou Mazzuchelli played by Josh Radnor formerly of How I Met Your Mother (where he was also constantly upstaged by a gay). Radnor is a television everyman, blandly handsome and with eyes that suggest depth. He is also in possession of a scraggly beard that is more distracting than it is a serious thespian signifier. The premise is that he is a happily married with three kids English teacher who is in a rut. So he decides to follow his dream and take over the drama department from Rosie Perez and produce forward-thinking and important musicals instead of another production of Grease.

This leads to speeches about the power of theatre and how "every one of these kids have greatness inside them." And frequent admissions that he's never directed before and doesn't know what he's doing so he may be unconventional. And a weird speech from his son about how not being an artist is letting his father down. When Mazzuchelli referenced his estrangement from his father, I actually snorted out loud. The character is just not given any motivation that makes sense. It is all conjured out of thin air by that seductive elixir that is the power of the nebulous desire to be an artiste. It is almost as comically heartbreaking as the Baskets mantra, "I want to be a clooown." The actual barnburner of a monologue on the power of theatre is given by Perez who sells it by sheer force of personality and a backstory that justifies it.

However, if Radnor's character were gay, or in this instance a closeted gay, it would all make perfect sense, even the blatant Hamilton product placement. I can believe that there are straight male English teachers. I can believe there are straight males who are musical theatre fans. I can believe that there are straight males who are sensitive enough to intuit a gay teen's dilemma and intervene discreetly. I can believe that there are straight males who are well-versed in trans issues. I can believe that there are straight males who direct musical theatre well. I can believe that there are straight males who are always impeccably groomed in a casually chic manner. I can believe that there are straight males who have beautiful understanding wives with whom they appear to have no chemistry or have any interest in. I can't believe that there is a straight man who has all of the above.

Perhaps, we can hope, that Katmins is hewing to the structure of the source inspiration and that there will be a coming out storyline in the future (and there is one eye contact scene between Radnor and Gillespie that hints at subtext). It certainly would add the opportunity for more drama and meaty material for Radnor to sink his teeth into. In the meantime I'm going to give Rise the benefit of the doubt and am involved enough to sample a few more episodes once the series starts its run. I need to know what happens to Jeremy, Simon and Michael. And hopefully eventually Mr Mazzuchelli.

Rise airs on Tuesdays at 10pm beginning Tues, March 18 on the Global Television.